Ken Burns blends alchemy and archive in “The Vietnam War”

A circa 1830s New England home tucked into the rural American Northeast, where the Mad Brook babbles into the Connecticut River, is at the heart of Ken Burns‘ search for ...
February 17, 2017

A circa 1830s New England home tucked into the rural American Northeast, where the Mad Brook babbles into the Connecticut River, is at the heart of Ken Burns‘ search for responses to the longtime question on American identity: Who are we?

Over a 38-year period, every project on the documentarian’s slate has attempted to provide a multi-polar lens in answer to that driving question. To that end, Burns (pictured below) and his robust team of researchers and editors have examined endless reels and collections of archival material, searching for nuance with the intensity of miners patiently panning inch by inch of alluvial soil in search of flecks of gold.

The magic, so to speak, happens in the above-mentioned editing chambers in Walpole, New Hampshire, where Burns has worked on almost all of his films with a ceaseless devotion to detail. There, the filmmaker has created “an alchemy that resists articulation”, developing a process of collecting, documenting, visiting and revisiting each archive in the hope that, with each new view, novel perspectives will mushroom.


Burns and his partners at Florentine Films are now in the year-long final phase of putting to bed their latest series – The Vietnam War, a project that provides a slightly different challenge when compared with his other war series: the seminal Civil War and The War, which covers the second World War. With the events of Vietnam still fresh in many American memories and with many veterans around to tell their tales, the new series provides a unique avenue for engagement.

ken burns headshot

“How is it that you can tell [the story] in a way that permits a multitude of voices and perspectives to feel like they are being heard and honored?” asks Burns in a telephone interview in December with realscreen. “That, I think, is the great challenge of our Vietnam film.”

In it, Burns and Lynn Novick piece together a narrative that extends over 10 episodes and 18 hours, developing a revisionist perspective on the war through myriad perspectives gleaned through 100 interviews, including – but not limited to – pro- and anti-war supporters on the U.S. side, the U.S. administration, and civilian and military voices from Vietnam.

The overall scope of Vietnam aside, the film will feature a unique archival voice for a Burns’ history series, which is being produced out of the company’s New York offices by Sarah Botstein, Novick and Burns. It will be edited in the Walpole studio, and contains a veritable vault of archival materials: including photographs from some of the most acclaimed journalists of that time, and unseen home videos and recordings from within the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.

An unusual dimension of the archive is the wealth of footage from the broadcast networks, a departure from previous Florentine Films’ series where the documentation of war was sourced from the the National Archives. Vietnam marked the first time that broadcast networks brought the story of war into American living rooms.

“I treat the footage as if it is coverage. I feel obligated to not just illustrate, but [also] to find some artful way of combining the various footages to do something more,” Burns says.

the vietnam war

We will have to wait until September 2017 when The Vietnam War debuts on PBS to know how Burns and Novick achieve the effect in this ambitious series. But Burns offers some insight: In the final episode of the series, the focus is largely on the Tet Offensive (which began on Jan. 30, 1968) and its aftermath.

In the Walpole editing studio, a long-time editor and Florentine Films collaborator, Erik Ewers, is one of the master cutters of the Tet Offensive sequence. Burns points to the episode as an example of his effort to provide a truly immersive experience of the Vietnam War, which he describes as an “artful blend” of everything – “of quick cutting and also very slow cutting, and also realistic sound effects and the music, the commentary of the people who were in the middle of it, frantic radio communication and TV reports both on and off camera.”

In the scores of screenings that are part of the decade-long editing process behind The Vietnam War, Burns brings in people with different lenses to view the film. By providing a wide ranging presentation of the offensive, which proved to be the turning point in the U.S. war, Burns seems satisfied with the use of the archive: “I haven’t had one person respond that they didn’t feel like they were in it.”

The use of the archive is seminal in retelling history from diverse vantage points. Yet, the skill of deploying archive in new and astonishing ways is something Burns has quietly mastered over time, beginning in the late 1970s when he worked alone in a little cabin a couple of miles from the current downtown Walpole location. There, financially strapped but dedicated to the making of Brooklyn Bridge (released in 1981), he spent countless hours poring over image after image, searching for hidden truths.

“You want to make sure to use the stills and the footage in a way that you are looking for something more, a condition in which the words you’re hearing or the sounds that you’re hearing and the picture that you are seeing just don’t add up to one and one equals two, but you’re looking for some odd catalyst where one and one equals three,” he says.

Therein lie what Burns calls “equivalencies, and that’s a little bit different from illustration.”

The effect is almost illusionary, and the filmmaker says the best compliment of his career came to him during an awards ceremony for that first film at the Brooklyn Museum. A woman in the audience wanted to know where Burns had acquired the footage of the girl on the Brooklyn Bridge. It isn’t footage, Burns informed her. He patiently described what he had done with a still photograph, tilting the camera upwards on the image and layering on a soundtrack – the sound of seagulls passing overhead, the men shouting to one another, the creaking of a crane in motion – to make the photograph come alive. But the woman in the audience was disbelieving. She argued that it could not have been a photograph.

“That’s when you know you’ve done it,” he says.

brooklyn bridge

Over the past 38 years, Burns says he has grown as a filmmaker but his process of playing with and presenting archival materials in a new format to his audience hasn’t changed much. Given that Florentine Film projects often come to life over years, not months, the most obvious ingredient in his recipe is time.

“If you are willing to spend as many years as we do in crafting [a project], then you have the possibility that the body of water you are working in is not shallow but deep.”

Achieving depth comes through the collaboration of a mixed team of seasoned Burns-trained editors and fresh blood. For months the team listens to a recording of Burns’ voice telling the story sans images. The editors listen to the story almost as an audio recording, seeing no faces, no images, and no footage until they arrive at the arc of the story. Little by little the images and footage are inserted along with a soundtrack (the editing is informed by the beat and rhythm of the music as much as the words in its narration).

“Dozens and dozens” of screenings follow before an episode is finally a final cut.

The change in Burns’ approach from Brooklyn Bridge to, say, The Vietnam War is less to do with the craft of storytelling and more with the changes in technology.

In the old days Burns would spend hours in each archive hand photographing images using two umbrella lamps and moving in and out to create that legendary “Ken Burns effect.” Most of that work now takes place using a computer program to create movement and effects.

Technology, he insists, changes very little in the fundamental business of storytelling. In the 1850s lots of people said that the telegraph would change everything, he says. There was fear that the process would change how we communicate. “But look, you still put your pants on one leg at a time.”

The Walpole studio was once owned by a doctor. In the doctor’s chambers today there is a kind of medical precision to the Burns process; like a good surgeon the craft is mastered over hours and days and years, and through the act of repetition. How long should this shot last? What should he cut to? What color should its background be? Through trial and error, that same shot is done and redone until the result is achieved.

The process, according to Burns, is a “different kind of heart surgery.”

Other heart surgeries in production at the moment include Country Music and Ernest Hemingway, both to be released in 2019, the former produced by Dayton Duncan (also a long-time Walpole resident) and long-time Burns’ collaborator (Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea).

The equivalencies Burns seeks in his treatment of archive can be traced to his tutelage under still photographers. In fact, Burns owes the use of the borrowed phrase to one of his mentors, modernist photographer Paul Strand, famous for his 1915 documentary photo of Wall Street but also for his silent film Manhattan, which depicted everyday life in New York. Strand used the term “equivalencies” to describe what he looked for in an image. Burns believes he has “bolderized” the term through his treatment of the archive.

“By energetically moving across its landscape,” the filmmaker treats live footage as if it were a painting.

“In archive we’re trying to suspend the laws of belief and treat it as if it were coming alive,” he says.

Through the filmmaker’s relationship with PBS, the final result reaches hundreds of thousands, many of them in schools training to be the future leaders of their communities.

“I’ve been in the business of telling shared stories,” he summarizes. “The solution is not to divide to our tribal instincts but to find in these shared stories connections for people.

“Some of the recent divisions were born in Vietnam so if our film can help unpack some of that stuff that would be a good thing.”

The archive has been a trove for Burns who has sought to create a new lens through which to retell history, digging deep into that treasury.

Russian author Leo Tolstoy defined the activity of art as a social good based on the “capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself.” Burns references Tolstoy on the importance of the transfer of emotion from one person to another.

“Stories produce emotions in me,” he says. “I wish to figure out ways to tell complex stories and to share those emotions with other people, knowing full well that every other person on earth would receive it slightly differently (or maybe completely differently) from me.”

This story was first published in the Jan,/Feb. issue of realscreen magazine

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